I came to Washington, more than four decades ago, to run the Palestine Human Rights Campaign (PHRC). We founded the PHRC after hearing from lawyers and human rights activists in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian lands horrible stories of rights being abused on a daily basis. Because these stories were not known in the US, or they were ignored, we launched the PHRC to shine a light on these violations and mobilise support for the Palestinian victims.
Early on, we were successful in gaining the endorsement of prominent civil rights leaders, major anti-Vietnam war activists, and church leaders from a number of major Christian denominations. There were, however, only a few Members of Congress who embraced our efforts, and those who did often put themselves at risk of incurring the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC made no secret of their displeasure with elected officials who were supportive of Palestinian rights and often threatened Members of Congress that if they did not back off, they would be defeated.
In 1979, I received a call from the staff person of one Congressman who had endorsed a few of our more prominent cases and had been a consistent critic of Israeli policies. He had repeatedly voted against bills to give Israel more aid, citing their human rights record. The staff person told me that her boss met with representatives of AIPAC and someone from the embassy of Israel and a heated discussion had ensued. She said that because he liked and trusted me, I should come over to the office and speak with him. I did so, but never got to see him. In fact, despite the fact that we had been friends, he rarely spoke with me after that day. Not only that, but during his next few decades in Congress he never again voted against AIPAC-supported legislation, all the while becoming one of the largest recipients of pro-Israel financial contributions.
It was fear, the threat of defeat and the power of campaign contributions, either for you (if you voted “correctly”) or against you (if you dared to vote “incorrectly”) — that shaped the way that Congress behaved on matters involving Israel and the Palestinians.
Members of Congress are not, by definition, the bravest souls on the planet. Because of the corrupting influence of money in politics and the ever-increasing amounts being spent on political campaigns (mainly for television and digital advertising), elected officials find themselves engaged in never-ending fundraising.
I remember expressing my frustration to former Congressman John Conyers that Members who consistently voted to give Israel blank check support were acting in an unprincipled way against the interests of the United States. He laughed and told me that from the day they were first elected, the only principle that guided a Congressperson’s behaviour was what they felt they needed to do to be reelected. “In their minds,” he said, “the national interests of the US becomes synonymous with their reelection”.
While there are a number of principled souls serving in Congress, for too many Members raising money and getting reelected become ends in themselves. Many will have issues that motivate their public service but as they make their election calculations they’ll say “why should I go against the banking industry, or the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, or the gun lobby, or Israel, when doing so might only result in money being raised to defeat me?”
Even very principled Congressmen have been known to make such determinations. In 1980, after Israel had expelled two Palestinian mayors, I went to Congress seeking support. My first stop was a well-known human rights champion. I said to him, “I’m asking for your help because I know that you are a consistent advocate for human rights. You’ve spoken out for victims in South Africa, the Philippines, and Latin America. And you’re a leader in the struggle for nuclear disarmament and civil rights here in the US.” His response was: “And if I do what you’re asking me to do, money will be spent to defeat me and I won’t be around to champion those causes for which I’ve been fighting.” Now I knew and I believed that he knew that wasn’t true. He was from a very safe district and would be reelected until he decided to retire. But the point he was really making was “I’ve already got so many powerful interests lined up against me, do I really need to add another one to create more discomfort for me and my staff?” [Note: he remained on office for many more terms, ultimately came around on Palestinian rights and was never seriously challenged.]
The money that could be raised for or against a candidate was real, but it was never the decisive factor. More consequential was the cultivated myth of AIPAC’s invincibility.
AIPAC consolidated its hold early in the 1980’s when they received two unearned gifts. They were able to claim credit for the defeat of two prominent elected Republicans, a congressman and a senator. I know first-hand that although AIPAC did pour a great deal of money into both elections, other critical factors decided both contests. The Republican congressman lost because he had been redistricted from a Republican-majority district to one that favored Democrats. In addition, in the year he lost, there was a Democratic wave in which the party won an additional 27 seats in Congress. But that did not stop AIPAC from boasting that they had vanquished their foe and use this victory to cement fear of their power.
The senator’s defeat in 1984 also played into the AIPAC myth. It is true that a great deal of money was raised to defeat him, including 1 million dollars to run a more conservative individual as a third-party candidate to siphon votes away from him. But, as he told me just one month after his loss, the real reason for his defeat was that for the first time Black voters had endorsed his opponent. Up until that election, he had run against more conservative Democrats and had won the support of the Black community. The year he lost, he ran against a liberal Democrat who had the backing of newly-elected Chicago mayor, Harold Washington. That did not stop AIPAC from once again boasted of their victory in defeating a “foe of Israel”. In the years that followed, one pro-Israel Senator became known for taking colleagues aside who were undecided on an issue of importance to Israel and reminding them of their former colleague’s defeat saying, “you don’t want the same thing to happen to you, do you”?
During the time of the Iron Curtain, when the Roman Catholic Pope would name a Cardinal in an Eastern European country, he would do so “in our heart” fearing that if the name were released it would be cause for persecution. Over the decades, I have compiled my own list “in my heart” of Members of Congress who have told me, in confidence, “I’m really with you, but I’m afraid to go against AIPAC.” None have been “profiles in courage.” Some, though publicly vocal supporters of Israel, have been nothing more than outright anti-Semites. I had a special name for them, “anti-Semites for Israel.” But that is what fear does. It may win public support, but it also provokes silent resentment.
I can be thankful that all this is changing, at least among Democrats. The recent victory of Jamaal Bowman over AIPAC-backed Eliot Engel; AIPAC being forced to “give permission” to Members of Congress to oppose Israeli annexation plans for the West Bank; and the recent letter to US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, from 12 representatives and one senator not only opposing annexation, but promising legislation to condition US aid to Israel to their policies in the West Bank, all provide evidence that AIPAC may be losing its grip on Congress. Here are some of the reasons for this change: the outrageous arrogance of Benjamin Netanyahu; the fact that today the dominant pro-Israel lobby in Washington is the Christian right-wing of the Republican Party; the virtual marriage of Netanyahu and President Donald Trump; the deep divisions in the Jewish community that have given birth to powerful new groups that advocate for justice and peace; the fact that Arab Americans have become empowered and unafraid to speak out; and the growing support for Palestinian rights among especially Black voters, but also Latinos, Asian-Americans, and young voters, in general.
It is these factors combined that have turned the tide. I wish that it had been sooner. But it’s happening now, and we are better for it.
The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute